St. Vital ‘za takes the crown The Original Royal Pizza still rules
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‘Are you getting all this?”
In the spring of 2009, Dina Davis was getting set to open a pickup and delivery version of Royal Pizza, the Greek-flavoured restaurant her father Tom Iliopoulos founded as a dine-in establishment on St. Anne’s Road, near Meadowood Drive, in 1975.
She had rented a spot a few kilometres north of where Tom’s Royal Pizza & Lounge originally stood and was hoping to inject new life into the brand following an interim period that saw her two older brothers run things out of the St. Vital Hotel, now the Riverside. The problem was, she hadn’t been involved in the biz since 2003, when the first iteration closed, and wasn’t entirely sure how to make her father’s signature pizza sauce.
One morning, her dad was telling her precisely what to do, when he stopped talking in mid-sentence, she says, seated at a table inside Original Royal Pizza, the St. Vital mainstay’s fourth — “and final” — premises at 1500 Dakota St., which she and her husband Christian Davis have operated as a full-service restaurant-and-lounge, for the last seven years.
Her father asked if she was writing his instructions down. Of course, came her reply.
The next thing she knew, he was destroying her notes, “like Mission: Impossible or something,” all the while stressing how important it was that she commit the recipe to memory, for safekeeping.
“So yeah, to this very day, I mix all the spices myself, when nobody else is around. I suppose we’ll be in trouble if I don’t show up for work, but then again, Dad drops by pretty often, and I’m certain he has it stored up here, too,” she says, tapping her noggin.
Iliopoulos arrived in Canada from his native Greece in 1960 at the age of 18. One of 10 siblings, he had been told by an older brother who had left home a year earlier that there was plenty of opportunity in Thompson, mining ore. He spent close to 14 years in the north before he and Monica, his Austrian-born wife who moved to Thompson to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, headed west to Vancouver.
They weren’t enamoured with B.C., their daughter says, so they returned to Manitoba in 1974, settling in Winnipeg. Iliopoulos wasn’t a trained chef, by any means, but that didn’t prevent him from landing a position at the Original Food Bar, a legendary downtown eatery that was perhaps best known for a dish called the half-and-half, which consisted of equal parts spaghetti and baked beans.
He enjoyed cooking immensely, as it turned out, and ultimately decided he wanted to own a restaurant, too. One afternoon, he and another of his brothers were driving along Portage Avenue, when they passed a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. That was it, his sibling announced: if and when he had a place of his own, he should name it Royal Pizza.
Royal Pizza was a bit of a misnomer when the 100-seat locale opened at 628 St. Anne’s Rd. Sure, it served thick-crust pies fully loaded with toppings, the same sort customers seek out to this day, but it also offered more sophisticated choices, such as steak and lobster.
Dina, who was born in 1979, guesses she was five years old when she started accompanying her parents to the restaurant to lend a hand. She vividly recalls having to stand on a wooden crate to see what she was doing when she was shredding lettuce for Greek salads. She also remembers the benefits of rolling out of bed early on Sunday mornings.
“My dad would tell us to go clean the lounge and my brothers would complain, saying that job sucked,” she says. “Except to me, it was a goldmine, given all the loose change I’d find from customers who had a few pops the night before and couldn’t be bothered to bend over when they dropped quarters and dimes on the floor.”
Royal Pizza was one of the first places in the southeast corner of Winnipeg to host live music on a regular basis. As soon as Dina turned 18, she began assisting in the bar. That was, when she wasn’t checking out groups on her own at watering holes in other parts of the city. One evening she was at Jeffrey’s Restaurant and Lounge on Henderson Highway when she was “completely blown away” by the guitarist on stage.
She approached him between sets to ask if she could buy him a drink. It wasn’t a pick-up line, she stressed. Rather, her father ran a lounge in St. Vital, and if he was ever looking for an additional place to play, here was their number.
“The funny thing was, I grew up in Southdale, about five minutes from Royal Pizza, but had never heard of the place,” says Christian, the axeman-in-question, who, when he met his future wife, was a member of numerous outfits, including Shaker and Tune Town.
“Anyways, after coming down to meet Tom, I put a trio together, and hosted Sunday-night jams there for the next four years, right till it closed, pretty much,” he adds, laughingly mentioning the toughest part of the job was concealing his relationship with “the boss’s daughter,” as he didn’t want to risk losing the gig.
Iliopoulos was in his 60s when his lease came up for renewal in 2003. His decision to step away coincided with his sons shifting over to the aforementioned hotel, where they scaled the menu down substantially to pizza, pasta and chicken. Dina assumed control of an existing breakfast-and-lunch nook situated on the second level of an automobile dealership, of all places.
Dina’s Diner, as her one-person show was called, proved a tremendous hit, so much so that its clientele quickly expanded from the home dealership’s staff and customers to employees from neighbouring lots, too.
By the fall of 2008, Royal Pizza had runs its course at the St. Vital Hotel. It actually closed entirely, but when some former regulars created a Facebook group dubbed Bring Back Royal Pizza, Dina felt obligated to give it another shot.
She tried running Dina’s Diner and Royal Pizza simultaneously. After a few months of being run ragged — back then, she didn’t own a car and was taking two buses to get to the dealership, and two more to report to the pizza place — she decided that was it, she would concentrate solely on Royal Pizza, going forward.
The take-out operation was successful, yet Dina missed the days when her dad’s restaurant was a destination spot for people who wanted to relax over a meal and a glass of wine while grooving to live music. Christian was still performing, and they discussed how great it would be if he had a permanent place to play, which would mean not having to constantly haul his gear from one venue to another.
Based on delivery orders, the couple knew Royal Pizza had a strong following on the south side of the city. So when they were perusing retail listings and noticed a vacancy at Dakota Street’s River Park Village, next door to a Sobeys, they looked at one another and said, “Hey, just maybe.”
They drove there with her parents to have a look. Unfortunately, the unit they were shown was too small to suit their needs. As they were leaving the parking lot, Dina’s mother pointed to a shuttered dance studio that had a “for lease” sign in the window. “What about that place?” she remarked.
It turned out to be the perfect size, around 2,000 square feet, and following a few months of renovations, they held their grand opening in the summer of 2016.
“We’re not going to lie, it was a bit of a struggle at first getting people to consider coming to Royal Pizza for lunch,” Christian says, noting their so-called Getaway Café features a similar menu — homemade soups, sandwiches and burgers — to the one Dina developed at her diner, years ago.
“Usually when you hear pizza, you automatically think of Friday or Saturday night, but our goal was to become a place you could head to, for a bite on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, as well.”
While COVID-19 didn’t do them any favours, numbers are encouraging again, particularly when Christian’s group, the Nite Capps, is in full force, as was the case last weekend. (He laughs, stating if yay-many tables are occupied, he can continue jamming, but the minute the joint fills up, he might have to turn things over to his bandmates for a tune or three to go assist with orders.)
A bit of both, Dina says, when asked whether those coming through the door nowadays have followed Royal Pizza through its multiple stages, or are relative newcomers. One of the reasons she added “Original” to their tag was to clue first-timers in on just how long Royal Pizza has been around, but certainly, there are some who continue to place an order based on a long outdated number system.
“Uh, what’s a No. 10?” confused servers will ask when they approach her in the kitchen. That would be a Canadian pizza, with pepperoni, mushrooms, bacon and extra cheese, she tells them.
And while online reviews touting what comes out of the oven as “full of flavour,” “nice and gooey” and “easily the best pizza in the city” are always appreciated, when it comes to testimonials, the one that meant the most to her was from a fellow in his 80s, who dropped in recently with his wife and grandkids in tow.
“He told me he used to deliver propane to my dad in the ’70s, and how that might have been the last time he had our pizza,” she says.
“Later, when I asked how everything was, he said it was just the way he remembered it… how it hadn’t changed a bit. Not only is that a tribute to us, it’s a tribute to my dad, who started Royal Pizza from nothing, before I was even born.”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Sunday, March 12, 2023 9:20 AM CDT: Fixes Original Royal Pizza address